Monday, October 31, 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger

When I was an undergraduate in my class on 19th Century Europe with David Schoenbaum, he assigned us to read A World Restored, Kissinger’s work on the Congress of Vienna that created the post-Napoleonic European state system that lasted until the First World War. Of course, we knew who Kissinger was, as he was then serving as Secretary of State, and before then he served as Nixon’s national security adviser. Since then, I’ve read a big chunk of his book Diplomacy (very interesting, but I got distracted, by another book project. I’m definitely going back). Thus, as you can discern, Dr. K has some credentials with me. But, I thought, isn’t he really an expert on the European state system, you know, Westphalia, Vienna, Versailles, etc.? What does he know about China? I know that he went there to pave the way for the rapprochement led by Nixon, but just another stop on a busy itinerary, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. At age 88, he’s published a very engaging, nuanced book about China’s relation to the world that provides a fascinating and lasting impression. In fact, Dr. K has been to China on over 50 occasions, and he continued to meet with Chinese leaders well after he left office. Thus, we get the insights and thoroughness of a great scholar as well as the insights of a statesman who lived and contributed to much of the history that he discusses.

Dr. K understands Chinese strategic thinking. For instance, think of the Japanese game called “go” as the eastern counterpart to chess in the West. These two games display different perspectives on strategic thinking. After this foray into culture, Kissinger goes deeply into Chinese history in the 19th century, as China comes under domination by the Western powers. He recounts how China begins its long march back to great power status (where certainly it is today). Kissinger documents the Chinese perspective very well (at least from my limited knowledge). Of course, when he becomes a player, things begin to get more interesting in the book and in the world. The great Chinese leaders now come alive under first-hand observation. What a treat!

The final part of the book allows Kissinger to analyze how the future might unfold in light of the past. The historical example most often cited as a precedent for U.S.—Chinese relations is the rise of Germany in the second half of the 19th century and how that challenged Great Britain, the dominant power. Of course, we know that these two leading powers collided in WWI, a huge calamity. Are the U.S. and China destined for a violent encounter as China rises relative to the U.S.? Kissinger gives hope that this precedent need not prove the case. In this discussion, Kissinger shows himself the true statesman and diplomat. Careful and nuanced considerations of national interests, strategic, economic, and cultural (including human rights issues)—all must be carefully weighed, valued, and applied. No, there are not quick and easy answers, but answers, he believes, can be found.

A terrific book (best of the year)? I should also add that I listened to it, and the narrator, who sounded quite American most of the time, pronounced Chinese names as I would expect 1HP to have pronounced them, so this lent an air of authenticity to the reading.

1HP: After you’ve read this book, I would be delighted to share a guest post.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney

Social psychologist Baumeister and science journalist Tierney have teamed up to provide a popular account of type of academic work that Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted. This body of research has given us a new perspective on the age-old problem of the will. Actually, as scholars as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Garry Wills have written about the fact that St. Augustine developed the idea of the will in Western culture, a concept that the Greeks never really developed (although they were quite concerned with issues of self-control and self-regulation). Augustine was trying to understand why he didn’t always do as he would have himself do, a problem explored in Greek culture (witness Odysseus binding himself to the mast, Aristotle on habit, and St. Paul on why he does what he would not), but never directly addressed. No writer until Augustine addressed this topic head-on. In any event, having perceived myself as suffering a weak will, I’ve certainly read on the topic, and I find this book a welcome and useful addition to this literature.

The authors do a good job of mixing the findings of academic research with reports on contemporary and historical individuals as exemplars of willpower. David Blaine, the magician and stunt artist (which I do not intend as a derogatory term), David Allen (of GTD fame), Eric Clapton (recovering alcoholic), Oprah (dieting victim), and Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame), all provide true stories of individuals dealing with particular problems of will. This mix of reporting academic research with real-life examples works well (although how their findings and conclusions fit with Victorian willpower isn’t as completely explored as I would like).

The takeaway: we have a certain amount of willpower (which can increase with training), but which declines with use (thus drawing on the some ideas of Freud as the ego as a fixed reserve). Interestingly, researchers have found that a dose of sugar (energy) works to increase willpower when it begins to flag. In addition, dieting, as the “perfect storm” for challenging willpower, gets an interesting chapter to itself. Think about it: you’re exerting extra willpower and you’re short on energy, so the brain orders (loudly) “eat!”. That’s why it’s important to develop life-long good habits.

One other area that they don’t explore is the Buddhist mindfulness tradition and other traditions (Gurdjieff, for instance) and how the academic research might fit with spiritual and philosophical ideas of willpower. Indeed, many religious traditions contain examples of extraordinary self-control and awareness. How does this all fit in? I suggest that we have to write that chapter ourselves.

In the end: a fun, interesting, and useful book. Recommended.